French stock up on baguettes in coronavirus lockdown

As anxious consumers around the world stockpile toilet paper, the French thronged bakeries for baguettes, fearing a shortage of their daily bread as they wait out the coronavirus epidemic in confinement.

French stock up on baguettes in coronavirus lockdown
Photo: AFP

T he country of 67 million people consumes nine billion of the long loaves every year, has an annual competition for the best baguette in Paris, and a special word for the pointy end they chew off on their way home from the baker after work: the crouton.

Bakers are among the few essential-service businesses allowed to stay open in France under strict anti-virus confinement measures that took effect on Tuesday.

And they are thriving, with long lines in the cities and countryside alike.

“Our numbers have doubled since Monday,” Addenour Koriche, sales manager of a bakery attached to a large supermarket north of Paris, told AFP on Wednesday.

“We are now on 800 baguettes per day. Yesterday, for example, we had no baguettes left to sell by 3 pm.”

The store was to keep open for another five hours.

People line up in front of a bakery, placing at least the obligatory one-metre distance between themselves. Photo: AFP

The bakery sported newly-applied black lines on the floor, improvised with lengths of tape, to help customers respect the suggested one-metre safety distance to limit spreading the virus that has sickened more than 9,100 people and killed 264 in France.

A brand new perspex screen shielded the vendor – wearing latex gloves but no face mask, and atypically using tongs to handle the bread – from a steady stream of customers. 

“We have people who normally take a half a baguette or one baguette per day, who are now taking four or five to freeze them in case even stricter confinement measures are announced,” said Koriche.

On Tuesday, France's labour ministry approved a special waiver allowing bakeries to be open seven days a week instead of the legal limit of six days.

“The waiver will allow the French to buy bread without stress every day,” noted Matthieu Labbe of the Federation of Bakeries.

“We've seen people come in who want to buy 50 baguettes at a time. There's something like a psychosis in some people.”

Labbe said there need be no concern over supply, even as some bakers have taken to placing a limit on sales per client.

“We have flour, yeast and salt. There is no problem to produce bread.”

Crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside. The baguette is a national treasure in France. Photo: AFP

There are 33,000 bakeries in France, one to about 2,000 people on average, but most neighbourhoods boast several – sometimes even in the same street.

US-born historian Steven Kaplan, himself a trained baker, said French bread consumption has decreased dramatically – from about 600 grammes per person per day in 1900 to about 80 grammes today.

But despite bread no longer being viewed as a bare essential, it is engrained in French culture, even its politics – a source of pride and cultural exceptionalism.

“The welfare state is first sketched out in France as a state that assures people its bread,” said Kaplan, who lives in Paris.

“Bakeries have always been a quasi public service,” he added, noting that in World War One and Two, bread was also of extraordinary importance in France.

“Even in the worst kind of crisis the baker has to be open, like the fire station, like the pharmacy, like the hospital,” he said.


France even has a National Competition for the Best Baguette of French Tradition. Here's one of the 2019 finalists preparing his bread. Photo: AFP

On Monday, President Emmanuel Macron sought to impress upon the French that they were engaged in a “war” against the coronavirus, using the word several times in a televised address to the nation.

“In a war context we are confined, we have an enemy – the enemy is invisible but its still the enemy – we have to fight it and in this context when people are worried about obtaining food… the return to bread is in some sense a quasi-instinctive or almost atavistic return to something familiar,” said Kaplan.

Dominique Anract, president of the national confederation of bakeries and pastry shops, said the industry employed 180,000 people in France.

“Bread is food, but it is also a social link between people,” she said. “Some people have the habit of coming to the bakery every day for a chat.”

For the French, Anract said, “bread is a reassuring staple food even though with globalisation habits have changed.”

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ANALYSIS: Is France food self-sufficient?

The war in Ukraine and, in the longer term, climate change have prompted concerns about supplies and cost of food - but would France be able to produce enough to feed its population if necessary?

ANALYSIS: Is France food self-sufficient?

As food prices rise in France and elsewhere, questions over the country’s food security and self-sufficiency have been asked.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – a major exporter of wheat, corn and oil – has affected global markets, with prices for such products increasing dramatically, while sanctions imposed on Russia – the world’s biggest wheat exporter – following the invasion are also hitting prices. 

It has also prompted questions as to whether, if necessary, France could feed the 67 million people who call it home, while both the European Commission and the G7 set out plans to safeguard global food security. 

Unlike other countries, such as Switzerland, France does not have a formal policy of self sufficiency for food – though it does have a policy for energy security.

READ ALSO Why is France so obsessed with nuclear power?

“There is no risk of shortage in France because our agriculture and our agri-food sectors are strong and sovereign,” former agriculture minister Julien Denormandie said on March 16th, while acknowledging that the industry faced a number of challenges.

He pointed to the economic and social resilience plan published by ex-Prime Minister Jean Castex to protect the French economy from the the effects of the Ukraine war, and which included measures to, “secure our producers, our processors as well as our agricultural and food production from 2022.”

Food prices, as predicted, have risen, both for imports and for domestically produced goods as farmers are hit by rising costs for fuel. The agriculture industry has been among the sectors consulted and farmers have been singled out for support, in order that they will be able to minimise price rises to consumers.

In April 2020, at the height of the Covid pandemic, it was estimated that France imports about 20 percent of its food.

But France – a food exporter – could feed its entire population, according to a report by the think tank Utopies, published in April. There’s a reason the country has been referred to as the ‘bread basket of Europe’.

The study found that France currently meets 60 percent of its own food needs, but has the potential to become self-sufficient. The report said that the 26 percent of food products currently grown in France for export or incorporation into processed food could be used to cover 98 percent of France’s domestic needs, the report said.

Food processing in France, of which some 24 percent is currently exported, could cover 114 percent of the country’s needs in that sector, it added.

Of course food ‘needs’ don’t include luxury imported items like exotic fruits, chocolate and coffee, so diets would see a change in a completely self-sufficient France.

More recently, drought has also prompted short-term concerns, with French farmers worried about their harvests this year. 

France is the EU’s biggest wheat exporter, and one of the top five in the world. But hopes that French farmers would be able to offset at least some of the shortfall in the world’s supply of grain following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have been hit by the record low rainfall so far this year, which have prompted warnings of a large drop in yields.

ALSO READ ‘No region has been spared’: Why the dry weather in France is causing concern

The forecast is for a smaller than usual French wheat harvest this year. With wheat-producing states in the US such as Kansas and Oklahoma also suffering in drought conditions, a poor harvest in France this year could be particularly significant – and could lead to wheat prices rising even higher in the short term.

At the height of the pandemic, president of the Fédération nationale des syndicats d’exploitants agricoles (FNSEA) Christiane Lambert told Les Echos that there were two key pillars to ensuring food security and independence in France – the ability to produce and the ability to store. 

“No one bought French flour anymore because foreign flour was cheaper,” Lambert said. “So we produced less. But with the coronavirus crisis, it was necessary to respond to demand and therefore relaunch the production lines by running them day and night to avoid shortages.”

French agriculture was able to meet the challenge then. “We have in France a complete ecosystem which allows us to control all the links in the food chain … It must be preserved if we want to be sovereign over our food,” Lambert added.

But there would need to be a change in philosophy about food, according to Les Republicains’ senator Laurent Duplomb.

In France, “entry-level” agricultural products are mainly imported, since authorities have insisted on reorienting domestic production towards quality over quantity.

“We must also stop focusing on high-end agriculture because food sovereignty means being able to produce for everyone,” Duplomb said back in 2020. 

“The risk in a few years is to have two French consumers. The first will have the means to buy top-of-the-range French products, the second will be condemned to consume only imported products since France will no longer produce them.”